Sunday, February 2, 2020

St. Augustine's Gilded Age Tourist Amusements

This blog and all my subsequent writing is the direct result of my fascination with the city of St. Augustine. My wife and I visit at least once a year, and I never seem to run out of entertainment options, despite the fact that I've making treks to the ancient city my whole life. There are both high brow and low brow offerings  – from spectacular architecture and sophisticated museums to cheesy gift shops and campy tourist traps. I can't seem to get enough of either.

The Gilded Age visitor would have had also had a variety of entertainment options and as the city exploded with travelers in the last few decades of the nineteenth century there was no excuse for ennui on a visit to St. Augustine. If you were staying at a hotel in the Flagler system, (the Ponce de Leon, Alcazar, or Cordova) it was almost like staying in an all-inclusive resort. The list of leisure activities was vast and varied from cakewalks, dances, and concerts at the Ponce to a spa experience across the street at the Alcazar – complete with gymnasium and an enormous indoor swimming pool. Outdoor activities included tennis, golf and baseball (both played on the grounds outside the fort), and the ever-popular Victorian pastime of bicycling.

Swimming in the pool of the Alcazar Hotel was a favorite activity of Victorian visitors to St. Augustine. Image from the Library of Congress. 

Promenading on the seawall; colorized illustration from Harper's Weekly
courtesy of the Matheson History Museum.

Of course, promenading along the seawall was an essential activity, as it was seen as both healthful to inhale the salubrious salt air and it fulfilled a valuable social component to see and be seen by prospective mates and potential rivals. According to the City of St. Augustine website, the historic St. Augustine Seawall has long been "an integral part of the city’s fabric — a coquina sentinel from rough waters, a promenade for romantic strolls and waterside socials." Along the seawall, several other entertainment options presented themselves, the equivalent, perhaps, of the establishments one might find today on present-day St. George Street. Here are a few of my favorite second-tier diversions that competed for the opportunity to separate Victorian visitors from their wallets.

Dr. Vedder's on the left side of the sea wall, Capo's Bath House on the right.

Dr. Vedder's Museum and Menagerie

Dr. John Vedder practiced dentistry in the old city in a Spanish Colonial building not far from the Cathedral. Accreditation for medical doctors and dentists was a bit sketchy in the nineteenth century and it appears likely that Vedder learned his trade from studying his son's dentistry textbooks, (his son earned a dentistry degree from Union College). The senior Dr. Vedder, a native New Yorker who worked on railroads up north, moved to St. Augustine in the late 1870s.

Dr. Vedder on Treasury Street, photo from

Apparently, teeth and trains weren't Vedder's only interests and he, like many Victorians, was an "avid collector of natural specimens and began displaying these specimens in his office," according to this online account. A flattering profile published in the Hartford (Kansas) News states that he began the study of taxidermy in 1876 and soon became an "acknowledged authority on the subject." The article claims that he created the "finest collection of live animals and birds, Indian relics, mounted fish, reptiles, crustaceans, etc. in Florida." Eventually, his collection's popularity dwarfed his dentistry practice, and he began operating Dr. Vedder's Museum and Menagerie across from the Yacht Club, full time.

Looking west down Treasury St. from Bay St., circa 1880.
The gentleman on the right appears to be Dr. Vedder. From the State Archives of Florida. 

Advertisements list the contents of his Curiosity Shop in great detail; "all the most poisonous reptiles on earth," the "St. Augustine Monkey Owl," "Dens of Alligators," and "Oceanic Wonders" including the "Monster Man-Eater Shark." All this and more for a reasonable two-bit admission price.  Vedder's building, located on Bay Street across from the seawall next to Treasury street, sported large painted signage that made it nearly impossible to miss.

African American boys posing in front of Dr. Vedder's Museum on Bay St.
From the State Archives of Florida.

Vintage postcard from the State Archives of Florida. Note the alligator in front of the building. 

This view shows the Sea Wall which was where Gilded Age visitors promenaded.
From the State Archives of Florida. 
The establishment thrived until Vedder's death in 1899 and it eventually came into the possession of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Ads in the 1906 Standard Guide show a rare glimpse inside the building, which in addition to Vedder's collection, included Native American artifacts, "relics" from the Spanish occupation, maps, and more. Sadly, the historic coquina building was destroyed in the fire of 1914.

Treasury Street postcard with a sign for the Museum.
From the State Archives of Florida. 
Rare image of museum interior from the 1906 Standard Guide.

Listing for St. Augustine Historical Museum before the fire.

Capo's Bath House

I'm obsessed with what I call "Florida's Golden Age of Bathing" and I have a book about the subject coming out this fall. St. Augustine's largest spring actually bubbles up in the Atlantic, so taking the waters in the city limits was a bit of a challenge. Capo's Bath House was a perfect solution for those needing a hydropathy fix, especially invalids and hypochondriacs, both of whom frequented St. Augustine in great numbers during the 19th century. The octagonal-shaped building was just south of the fort on Matanzas Bay near the end of Treasury Street across the street from Dr. Vedder's Museum. It had a stone foundation but was mostly made of wood. It was built around 1870 by Philip V. Capo, a descendant of the Minorcans who escaped from Andrew Turnbull's ill-fated colony in New Smyrna. Capo served the Confederacy during the Civil War and after the end of hostilities like so many Floridians of the era, he went to work making money from Yankees.

The sea wall with Capo's Bath House from the Library of Congress.
The facility offered baths in both hot and cold seawater, sulfur water baths, and showers, which were at that time more about hydropathy than hygiene. Capo also rented sailboats from a pier that extended beyond the bath house into the bay. According to writer Stuart B. McIver, women and children would bathe at low tide and then at high tide, a "ball war raised to the top of a wooden pole" to signal it was men's bathing time. Ideally situated adjacent to the promenade, the location was hard to miss, but sadly the structure also burned down in the fire of 1914.  Today you can still see a few of the terracotta-colored steps that led to the bath house along the seawall. The lounge of the famed Conch House Restaurant was created to look like the bathhouse, repeating the same eight-sided design with a similar clerestory.

Detail of Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the location of Dr. Vedder's Museum
(marked "Curios and Museum") and Capo's Bathhouse on either side of Bay Street.
The lounge of the Conch House Restaurant is an homage to Capo's Bathhouse.

Whitney's Fountain of Youth/Oldest House/Burning Spring Museum

John F. Whitney was another northern entrepreneur who invested in St. Augustine's 19th-century infrastructure, developing the Ravenswood neighborhood beyond the St. Sebastian River and creating several notable attractions. The home of the Massachusetts newspaperman and former politician was constructed on Spengler Island, and there he entertained notable guests there such as Mary Todd Lincoln. Whitney, the grandson of cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney apparently knew notable celebrities of the era including Thomas Edison and P.T. Barnum. Historian Thomas Graham called Whitney the "prototype of the modern Florida land developer," and he published a booklet called "A Brief Account of St. Augustine and Its Environs" to further promote his investments. Much of the booklet is devoted to glowing accounts of the healthful climate of St. Augustine, but it also included floor plans for new houses and a great deal of advice for one interested in making a home in Florida.

Note Ravenswood at the top of this map from the St. Augustine Directory from 1885-86.
Whitney's entire booklet can be viewed here.

As he developed the property around his home, an area he dubbed Ravenswood, he turned to the myth of Ponce de León s quest for waters of immortality as a gimmick to attract potential investors.  He constructed a small observation tower over a small spring and proclaimed it to be the fountain of youth and visitors could drink the famed life-giving elixir. Whitney's Fountain of Youth appears on several tourist maps from the era and an ad in the Standard Guide includes this description:

One of the most historical spots in America, Tonic 

Water, Iron, Iodine and other' medicinal properties. 

CAUTION! Do not drink more than three glasses at one 
time. It acts quickly and takes away that tired feeling. 

According to the St. Augustine Social magazine, the spring was located in West Augustine near the present-day Crookshank Elementary School. This spring attraction is not the same Fountain of Youth Park that was developed by "Diamond Lil" MacConnell around the turn-of-the-century and is still owned and operated by the Frazier family today.

"Whitney's Ponce de Leon Springs Fountain of Youth Tonic Water No. 1513 St. Augustine, Fla." From Dr. Bronson's St. Augustine History Facebook page, used courtesy of the Usina family.

In addition to having multiple Fountains of Youth, St. Augustine had more than one oldest house museum, including Whitney's Oldest House. Whitney's son Everett, leased what is now known as the Gaspar Papy House - Don Toledo House in 1903 and advertised it as "The Oldest House in America, ... built in 1516 by Don Toledo, for his Indian bride, assisted by the Seminole Indians..." But as a historical account in the Library of Congress points out, 1516 is only three years after Ponce de León discovered Florida, 49 years before Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine, and there were no Seminole Indians in Florida until the 1700s. The house was actually constructed by a Greek named in Gaspar Papy early in the 19th century.  Ads boasted of "mahogany doors, coquina floors, and furnishings over 200 years old." Everett Whitney ran the attraction until 1912 but the next owners continued to operate it under as "Whitney's Oldest House."  The collection was eventually purchased by the St. Augustine Historical Society. 

Interior of Whitney's Oldest House, Library of Congress

Postcards from the State Archives of Florida.
According to Thomas Graham, it was the younger Everett's idea to feature a pen of alligators at the Fountain of Youth location. The genesis of his concept appears to have derived from a single gator that made the unfortunate decision to settle in the spring; soon Whitney had a dozen alligators, in addition to "bears, wildcats, snakes, and other Florida animals." Alligator wrestling attracted more visitors to what was then a remote location in west St. Augustine, but at some point, Whitney moved some of his alligators to South Beach on Anastasia Island near the terminus of the trolley line that traveled between the town and the island. Eventually, the South Beach alligator attraction was taken over by Felix Fire and George Reddington, and they are given credit for being the founders of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm that still exists today.

Could this be Whitney's alligator pen? Photo from a private collection, circa 1900, shared by Tim Jackson on the Historic Florida group on Facebook. Used with permission.

1880s image of the horse-drawn trolley to Anastasia Island
from the State Archives of Florida.
Panoramic image showing the South Beach Alligator Farm and Burning Spring Museum.

Undated photograph of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm
from the State Archives of Florida.
Adjacent to his South Beach alligator pen, Everett Whitney opened a dubious attraction known as the Burning Spring Museum, another attraction full of Florida "curiosities" including an artesian well that when ignited "burned like alcohol." One account testifies that gas was poured on the spring before it was ignited, which might explain its apparent flammability.

"History of the Burning Spring" from the State Archives of Florida.

Here is a description by Hewstone and Hazel Raymenton, travelers to St. Augustine in 1916:
"Soon after crossing the toll bridge we came into sight of the sea.  At about the same time we passed close to the lighthouse which forms such a landmark when viewed from the city.  It is painted in a manner to resemble a stick of black and white peppermint candy . . . At this place there is an alligator farm much like the one we saw at Los Angeles. There may not be so many alligators here but there are more of the large sized specimens. One old monster is said to be fully four hundred years old and there are several others not much younger.  There are, in addition, several huge leather back turtles and cages of numerous different animals and birds. In one room is a collection of reptiles including an iguana and two gila monsters. One diamondback rattlesnake was so excited by the keeper that he rattled loudly for fully five minutes.  Most curious of all is a spring of water, the fumes arising from which can be ignited.  When allowed to rise through a pipe a fierce flame could be got but, strange to say, there seemed to be no burning qualities in it.  The water itself did not have an unpleasant taste." – Hewstone and Hazel Raymenton, 1916, from the holdings of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History
Tire advertisement from St. Augustine urging motorists to visit Anastasia Island, circa 1921,
from the State Archives of Florida
Fire and Reddington eventually moved the alligator farm further inland to its current location and the original location of the alligator pens and the burning spring "succumbed to erosion" according to Graham, and both were visible along the shoreline at low tide for many years afterward.

Undated promotional image from the St. Augustine Alligator Farm
from the State Archives of Florida.

Museums, Curiosity Shops, or Both?

The Victorian appetite for Florida's "curiosities" seemed immense – there was another establishment mentioned in the 1885 St. Augustine Directory called "The St. Augustine Museum" with an "almost endless collection" of historical objects, oddities, and novelties.  On the map in the tourist's guide, it is listed in the legend three times, as a "Collection of Old Spanish Relics," a "Circulating Library," and the "Bric-a-Brac and Antiquarian Store." The section preceding the museum's multiple page descriptions is a section titled "Curiosity Stores" that states that there were several establishments where the "natural productions of Florida can be obtained," the foremost being the Fort Marion Store within the Museum. It appears clear than many of the natural oddities on display in museums, could also be purchased.

Larry Roberts, author of "Florida Golden Age of Souvenirs" explains that natural science was a popular hobby among Florida visitors as "Darwinian doctrine fashionably infused Victorian intellect." "One could assume that tourists with dawning scientific curiosities would enjoy whiling away the hours seeking items of intrigue for their developing specimen collections" Roberts explains. "Bio curios" included seashells, exotic bird feathers, alligator teeth, and other miscellaneous items crafted from natural specimens. The line between museum and gift shop seems fuzzy and curio shops appeared to stock their stores with the same historic and natural novelty goods that were on display in museums of the era. The plethora of Florida curio stores in St. Augustine and other destinations is a phenomenon worthy of exploration in a future post.

The Museum was located opposite the fort near the city gates.
Add for a business selling Florida curios in the 1885 St. Augustine Guide.

Is there still a market for offbeat oddities and natural curiosities in the 21st century? One merely needs to look only as far as Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditorium, in operation continuously for 70 years in St. Augustine, to find out the answer is yes. In all my visits to the city, I've never visited Ripley's –  it's just another reason for a return trip.  If I could only purchase a Fiji Mermaid in the gift shop...

The building in the background of this 1892 cyanotype is the Castle Warden
which has served as the home of Ripley's Believe it or Not since 1950.
From the State Archives of Florida. 
Postcard of Fiji Mermaid from Ripley's.